Flurry of Diplomacy Aims to Put Middle East Talks Back on Track


DIPLOMATS on three continents struggled to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks yesterday, as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin prepared to leave here for a meeting with President Clinton in Washington:

* In Tunis, at Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters, senior Israeli officials discussed steps to coax the PLO back to the negotiating table, while Dennis Ross, head of the United States Middle East peace team, and a Russian envoy stood by.

* In Vladivostok, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher met Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who held talks with Mr. Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat during a lightning weekend tour of the Middle East.

* And in New York, the United Nations Security Council was expected to pass a resolution condemning the massacre of at least 30 Palestinian worshipers by a Jewish settler in Hebron that prompted the PLO to suspend its talks with Israel.

Israeli officials seemed confident that the diplomatic activity would bear fruit. ``We are definitely on the verge of a resumption of the talks, and I hope they will resume formally by the end of this week,'' Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said.

The Israeli delegation to Tunis, headed by Foreign Ministry Director General Uri Savir, offered ``a number of ideas which hopefully will facilitate a resumption of the negotiations,'' said a senior Israeli official, who asked not to be identified.

He stressed, however, that none of the Israeli proposals would contradict agreements reached with the PLO in the September international Declaration of Principles on limited self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, or in the subsequent Cairo agreement working out details of security arrangements.

Mr. Arafat has insisted, in the wake of the Hebron massacre, that the PLO will not conclude an accord on Gaza and Jericho until Israel disarms settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, evacuates Jewish settlers who live with Palestinians in towns such as Hebron, and allows an international force into the occupied territories to protect Palestinians.

Arafat told Mr. Kozyrev in Tunis on Saturday he expected ``clear and practical'' security guarantees from Washington and Moscow, the co-sponsors of the Middle East peace process.

The UN Security Council resolution calls for an ``international presence'' in the occupied territories, a call Washington says it will support only if Arafat pledges to return immediately to his talks with Israel.

International role

The PLO has refused to do that, and wide differences remain between Israel and the PLO over what an ``international presence'' - provided for in the Declaration of Principles - should look like.

While the Palestinians would like an armed international force, the Israelis have proposed nothing more than an office in Jericho from which foreign aid donors could distribute funds.

Yesterday's talks in Tunis, in which Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan was taking part on the Israeli side, were expected to deal with such questions. ``There is an assumption that there will be a [UN] resolution, and we have to agree with them [the PLO] on how to take it from there,'' the senior Israeli official said.

Israeli officials hope that Mr. Christopher in Vladivostok will urge Kozyrev to coordinate his Middle East peace efforts with the US, after two spontaneous visits here from senior Russian officials in as many weeks.

Arafat, on the other hand, appears to be encouraging a more active Russian role - accepting an invitation to visit Moscow next month, for example - in the hope that this will put pressure on Washington to put pressure on Israel to make more concessions.

But the Israeli government has ruled out any widespread disarming of settlers, or the removal of any settlements. ``The measures the government is taking against extremists ... is the maximum we are going to do,'' the senior Israeli official added.

The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday outlawed two extremist Jewish groups, Kach and Kahane Lives, as terrorist organizations. Baruch Goldstein, who carried out the Hebron massacre, was a member of Kach.

The government has also issued detention-without-trial orders against six extremist settler leaders, and yesterday arrested Rabbi Moshe Levinger - the father of the West Bank settlement movement. Other radical settlers have been restricted in their movements and some have been disarmed.

Government officials hoped these moves would be sufficient to persuade the PLO to resume talks this week. Once they get under way, Rabin has said, agreement could be reached in less than two weeks, and the Israeli Army could withdraw from Gaza and Jericho within six weeks.

The Israeli prime minister was anxious to end the crisis with the Palestinians before he left for Washington last night, allowing him to focus on the future of peace talks with Syria when he meets Mr. Clinton tomorrow.

Arafat under pressure

But Arafat is under pressure from opponents within the PLO not to resume the peace talks without prior agreement on international protection for Palestinians in the occupied territories. The UN resolution is the minimum he needs as political cover, Israeli officials concede privately.

PLO officials are insisting that Israel's crackdown on a limited number of extremist settlers is not sufficient. They are demanding that the Israeli government uproot some settlements.

But this runs counter to the Declaration of Principles, in which it was agreed to defer consideration of the settlements' future until negotiations on the final status of the occupied territories, due to begin in 1995.

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